Tuesday, June 21, 2011
"'Why should I care about this?'
Her question caught me off guard. It was back in the fall when I volunteered with an organization that offered weekly cooking and nutrition classes to homeless youth. It was not an easy group - the participants faced many challenges living on the streets, and sometimes those issues surfaced during class. Most nights the group was eager to cook together, to discuss nutrition and ways they could apply these lessons to their lives, but on this occasion one girl sat there most of the night with an angry look on her face and finally she said “I’m 18, pregnant and live on the streets. Why should I care about this?”
I had been prepared to answer questions about good protein sources or meal planning on a budget, but her question ran far deeper. And while I could have suggested all of the reasons I believed that health and nutrition should be important to her or the way it would impact her baby, what she really seemed to be saying was, I have bigger issues than this, and the way I eat is not going to solve my problems.
I was humbled and could not offer her a good answer, so I did what I’d learned from so many of my teachers. I threw the question back at the class, why should she care? Adding, why do you care? It allowed the group to explore, develop and refine their perceptions and beliefs about themselves, their circumstances and their ability to enact change.
As we peel away these questions we find others that probe the impact or futility of our actions. Why should I care? Can I really make a difference? My fellow graduates, your decision to study at Bastyr reflects that you believe in making a difference. Many of us entered Bastyr after a period we sometimes refer to as “our first life” and in breaking from that first life we made a conscious decision to invest our time and energy into a new field of study, a new career, at a university that supports our values - values like mindfulness, respect for the natural world and the integration of mind, body and spirit that extend to our actions, to the way we choose to eat, live, teach and practice natural health. And it will likely be challenging to translate those values into other settings.
In the coming days and weeks many of us will be moving to parts of the country where the name Bastyr may not bear the meaning that it does around here. Where the term "natural medicine" will draw quizzical looks and recommending a whole-foods based diet may be construed as suggesting someone shop at a specific grocery store. Many of these places will not offer such a multitude of options for sorting trash into recycling, compost, light bulbs, packing materials, batteries and cell phone bins. They may not provide the salad bars with seemingly endless supplies of beets and kale. And yet these are the places where we are most needed, where we have the most work to do and the most to contribute.
There are times when we may feel disheartened, and wonder why should we continue to care? Why should we bother? A few years ago Michael Pollan addressed this in a piece entitled, "Why Bother?" He poses this as a question faced by anyone who feels discouraged by the mounds of evidence suggesting that individual behavior cannot affect climate change. To which he offers that living and acting on principle can set an example for others, can trigger a chain reaction and possibly even a change in consciousness. Finally, he proposes that people must find one thing that lends them meaning. Pollan recommends planting a garden and discusses how it can nourish and empower us, how the act of planting a seed demonstrates faith in our potential to make a difference.
Lately I've been wondering why commencement is held here, in Benaroya Hall, in the center of bustling downtown Seattle, rather than on the beautiful grounds of our picturesque campus up in St. Edwards State Park. And I think the message is this: It is time to leave the walls of Bastyr, where we can easily live in line with our values, surrounded by like-minded peers. While we have chosen to focus our careers on health and wellness, we must remember that we are in the service of others who often have competing priorities and concerns , and we will likely face hard questions like, "why should I care?" Stepping outside our comfort zone we may feel discouraged, turn inward and ask ourselves, "why bother?" but it is precisely then that we identify and empathize with the challenge many of our patients face. Because beneath both of these inquiries lies the same philosophical question of human agency: Does my life matter? Do my choices have an impact? How can I make a difference? When we can elicit these questions and help people find meaningful ways to answer them, we find meaning ourselves. We plant seeds. We exercise our faith in change."
Congratulations to the Bastyr University Master's of Nutrition Class of 2011!